“Don’t go gettin’ yer church clothes dirty,” Mama said. My brother Jack and I scooted into the tiny two bedroom apartment just before she kicked the door shut behind her.
As she headed into the kitchen I grabbed Jack’s hand and led him into the bedroom the three of us shared. Jack struggled against me as I tried to pull off his shirt. I almost let go as his teeth came down on my bare arm. Even though I was nearly two years older than he was, I wasn’t much bigger, and he fought dirty. I didn’t really care about his clothes, but I knew he would need to wear them when we went to church again in a few days and there would be hell to pay if he got them dirty. It wouldn’t be his fault though. Oh no, it would be mine. That was enough to keep me going.
I yanked hard on his pants and he kicked me. I cried out in pain and indignation.
“Quit yer squawkin’!” Mama yelled from the kitchen. A cupboard door banged shut and a glass clanged down on the laminate counter.
I glared at Jack. He grinned. He liked to fight, especially against me.
“You’ll get us both in trouble if you don’t get outta those clothes,” I whispered to him.
“Can’t make me,” he sang as he swung his hips.
I lunged for him and missed, falling flat on my belly on the floor. I kicked the rough pine floor in frustration, scuffing my nice black shoes. Tears threatened to fall but I swallowed them.
Jack ran out of the room screaming, “Ma! Katie hit me!” He leaned back into the doorway and stuck his tongue out at me.
I lay face down, defeated. Heavy footsteps stomped down the hall. I knew what was coming.
“Git yer sorry ass up or I’ll give ya somethin’ to cry about!” She came into the room and yanked on my upper arm until I was standing. I kept my eyes down. I could smell the whiskey already on her breath. “Why are ya always causin’ trouble? Stop fightin’ with yer brother. He’s just a baby.”
I nodded but stayed silent. As far as Mama was concerned Jack could do no wrong.
Jack wiped his cheeks, clearing away nonexistent tears. He sniffled loudly and Mama patted his shoulder. “There now. She won’ be mean to ya no more.” She headed out the door, leaving me to finish getting Jack out of his church clothes.
Jack stood in the doorway and I pushed past him into the hallway. “Get them dirty. I don’t care anymore.” I was bluffing but hoped he couldn’t tell.
“Baby,” he called after me.
I ignored him and kept walking.
In the living room I turned on the cabinet-style television, a relic Grandma had held onto for 15 years. It was tuned to one of the three stations available. I sat on the threadbare rug, the pattern so worn and stained you could barely make out where the swirls of color used to be. It, like everything else in the apartment had been drained of color. It was like living in a sepia-toned photograph.
I looked at the dusty clock on the bookshelf. It was Grandma’s and had a little girl on a swing, counting the seconds. I loved that clock. It was time for the Cosby Show. My favorite part about Thursday nights. How I wished I could be Rudy Huxtable. I watched as her dad – the doctor – tried to take care of little Rudy when she was sick. It was so different from what happened when I had a cold!
I felt a stab of pain as something hit me in the back of my head. Jack stood grinning evilly by the hallway leading to the bedrooms. Even at the age of three there was something wrong with that boy. Tears stung my eyes but I wouldn’t let him see me cry.
Looking behind me I found the truck Jack had thrown. I picked it up and threatened to throw it back at him, but he knew I wouldn’t. He was still shirtless and in his slacks from church. One sock was missing. Mama was going to be some mad at me!
I turned back to the television but the show had gone to commercial. A Feed the Children advertisement drew me in, my heart breaking for those kids who didn’t have food. Somewhere deep inside I felt something stir. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but suddenly I was sure that some day I would be going to Africa to help these children. I leaned in closer, looking deep into their sad eyes. I felt something warm growing in me as I listened to the story of the little girl who didn’t get to go to school.
Then Jack stood in front of the TV. Without thinking I hurled the truck that was still in my hand at him. He ducked and the truck bounced off the screen. Mama came storming in like a tornado. All the air was sucked out of the room.
“That’s it! I’ve had enough, ya lil shit!”
I scurried to my feet, not waiting for her to get close to me. “Get outta my face and git to bed!” she screamed. It seemed to me the walls shook with the violence in her voice. I ducked my head and ran from the room, not daring to look back.
In the bedroom I lay on the twin bed I shared with Jack, staring up at the dark ceiling.
The preacher at church spoke of love and kindness. There was no love in Mama’s words. There was no kindness in her shrill tone. These lessons from church were as fake as the Cosby show, as likely to happen in real life as a father was to take care of his sick child.
“There is no God,” I whispered into the empty room. “God wouldn’t let children in Africa starve, and he wouldn’t let a Mama hate her daughter so much.”